It's easy to get disoriented in Walter Arbib's office here. The way he's plastered his walls with Egyptian posters, adorned his desks and bookcases with egyptian paraphernalia and stocked his shelves with Egyptian beer, the visitor gets the impression the body of water flowing outside Arbib's window is the Nile not the Midterranean.
Arbibs, vice president of VIP Travel and Tours Ltd. (formerly Mandy's), has just returned with arms full from the land of the Nile, where he gained entrance after brandishing a British passport. Arbib is one of several tour wholesalers and retailers in both Israel and Egypt who have not waited for signatures on a peace pact to begin making arrangements for direct tourist exchange between the two nations.
"We are ready, completely to go," said Arbib, whose agency has been making arrangements with FMECO Travel of Cairo since shortly after Egyptian President Sadat's visit here in November 1977.
"We're ready to operate as soon as the borders open," said Meri Griever, manager of Tourolam Ltd. of Tel Aviv, cooridnating arrangements with ITTA Ltd. travel agency of Cairo.
Kopel Travel, working with Misr Travel of Cairo, is "at such s stage that we'll be able to operate right away," echoed Sammy Rosenberg, managing director of Kopel.
Through personal contacts at international travel agent conventions, missives circuitoudly routed to each other through American and European liaisons, and rare telex messages allowed clearance by officials on both sides of the border shortly after Camp David, Israeli and Egyptian agents have been "unofficially" preparing and exchanging confidential tariffs, lining up hotel rooms, mapping out tour lines and ogling the potential bonanza awaiting tourism in the Mideast.
Different agents have widely different expectations. Trying to predict if there will be an immediate massive exchange of tourists deprived for 30 years of visiting their neighbor's land, is like trying to guess whether goldfish will continue to swim in lazy little circles when dumped from the small bowl to the big pond.
"In the first 12 months," estimated a bullish Rosenberg, "I expect 150,000 Israelis will go to Egypt."
"It would be unwise," countered Salo Scharf, general manager of Travex Ltd. of Jerusalem, "to expect that in the first year 20,000 Israelis would go to Egypt." Echoing a sentiment also expressed by Yoram Keren, Jerusalem manager of Egged Tours, Scharf believes the Israelis government will restrict the number of its people touring Egypt the first three years.
Still, there is general agreement among agents here-based, they say, on their conservations with Egyptian counterparts-that the major flow of tourists initially will be Israelis visitting the land of the Nile rather than Egyptians touring Israel. "When I was with Egyptian travel agents," said Geora Rejwan, director general of Rejwa's Travel Service Ltd. of Jerusalem, "nobody asked me, 'What's a good package for Israel?' Nobody shows an interest including Egyptian travel agents. It will be a trickle."
The most nagging problem cited by all agents is hotel accommodations in Egypt. "They're simply not there yet," said Micha Gidron, director of information services for the Israel Bureau of Tourism. "We're looking at about only 10,800 rooms there, of which only 2,000 to 3,000 are suitable in four-and five-star hotels. The rest are simply not up to proper standards."
And while several international firms are building hotels in Egypt now, Kopel's Rosenberg thinks he's licked the problem altogether. After persistent inquiries indicated "nobody could give us even 20 rooms," Rosenberg said, Kopel spent 10 months looking for, negotiating for and securing the option on an engineless ship with 400 cabins. The ship now sits in Pareus, Greece, waiting for the signal to tug it across the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, slip it through the Suez Canal, anchor it permanently on the Egyptian coast and refurbish it into Kopel's floating hotel.
The precise cost of packages offering direct connections between Israel and Egypt will depend on rates established by government-controlled airlines and bus companies in both countries. (Agents expect that eventual reactivationm of the old Israel-to-Egypt railroad line and establishment of regular two-way passenger-ship connections betweeen Haifa and Alexandria by Greek and Itallian liners will expand the tourist's options.)
The price tag for the round-trip flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo will fall between $75 and $90, agents here believe, and packages that subsitutethe 45-minutes flight with the seven- to eight-hour bus ride, expected to cost less than $10 one-way for the individual traveler, would be substantially less.
Ellimination of the presently required stopover in either Athens or Amman when travelling to both Israel and Egypt will mean a considerable savings in money and aggravations for tourists, agents expect. (Political problems between Egypt and Cyprus have closed that once-useful gateway to and from Egypt and Israel.)
"Now, you can do Israel and Egypt from Ney York, through Athens, 14 days, for between $1,200 and $1,400," noted Travex's Scharf. "Eliminating Athens would cut $250 to $300. Fifteen to 20 percent makes a lot of difference."
Tourolam's "Spend Passover in Egypt," Arranged with ITTA of Cairo and canceled last spring for its 390 Israeli applicants because peace had eluded both nations, was this season's $840, 15-day "Spend Chanukkah in Egypt9" That tour also was canceled. As with nearly all other tours contemplated now for Israelis going to Egypt, it included lodging at top-of-the-line hotels, airfare to Luxor (some substitute Aswan flights or included both) and day-trips to the Giza pyramids, ancient monasteries and other traditional stops in Egypt.
Rosenberg at Kopel Travel said he plans to offer mostly seven-and 14-day tours and is beginning work on seven-day cruises from Ashdod to Egypt. He estimated a group rate ranging between $1,250 and $1,500 persons for a 14-day (seven in Israel, seven in Egypt) "basic sightseeing, standard tour program." It would include airfare and accomodations on the floating hotel, for the New York venture. Kopel also intends to have its own tour buses operating in Egypt.
Arbib at VIP Tours estimates that eliminating the Greece connection will mean a savings of roughly $130 from the $713 (for twin-bed: $807 for single) 10-day Egypt and Greek islands package he has had to cancel for Israelis in the past year. At the same time, inflation is likely to have boosted the cost of the package.
Geora Rejwan, whose agency has been in contact with Eastman Travel, Misr Travel and Tutankhamun Tours and Travel, Ltd., all of Cairo, expects tourists departing New York and dividing 14 days between Egypt and Israel in first-class hotels to spend $1,330 for double occupancy, a savings of about $250 from present packages which include Athens and Amman stopovers.
While the excitement agents here feel fluctuates with the news out of Washington, their imaginations remain unrestrained. At least one mobile camper manufacturer is suggesting to tour operators that they incorporate into their Mideast packages rent-a-camper features.
Impressed by the opportunity to overcome both hotel and transportation problems, Perry Roded, managing director of the Promised Land Ltd. of Jerusalem, said he'll probably answer the solicitation. "Sure, you'll have to have servicing stations along the way and those things can get stuck in the mud and be a lot of trouble," Roded said, "but if someone's looking for an investment, there's the boom.
Despite the Delays in Negotiating A Mideast Treaty, Travel Agents in Both Egypt and Israel Optimistically Plan for Tours Across Open Borders